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Pacifism and Just War: The Sermon on the Mount

May 6, 2013

In this article I intend to follow up on the previous discussion of the large ideas behind just war and pacifism by examining the New Testament evidence.  The first thing I need to explain is why I intend to ignore the Old Testament here (something I generally think is unwise).  The simple answer is that no argument that depended on the violence of the Old Testament to stand could be conclusive.  Obviously the Old Testament is much friendlier to warfare than the New Testament but the New Testament also focuses on God’s full and final self-revelation.  If we found ourselves in a position where the Old Testament said or appeared to say one thing and Jesus said or appeared to say another Jesus would win1.  Given this we should seek to build our case from the New Testament.

It is also important to note that God’s own use of violence is not particularly instructive here.  While God’s divine violence may tell us that violence is not inherently in opposition to holiness (contrary to some pacifist theologies) it does not tell us anything more than that.  Much as one could agree with the tenets of just war theory without believing that any actual war met them one could easily believe that God in His perfect knowledge and unbiased viewpoint is capable of meting out violence in a correct manner while imperfect humans are not.  For this reason I will deal with the actions of Jesus in the gospels where he walks the earth as one of us and models perfect behavior for us (among many other things) but not Jesus in Revelation where his actions may not be intended for us to emulate.  Again, the purpose is to build a case that starts only with solid evidence.  Both Jesus’ actions in Revelation and the Old Testament can conceivably be called in as supporting evidence for a Gospel-centered case but they can only add some weight to that case and not tip the scales against it.

Within these limits there are three lines of evidence to consider: direct statements about violence, the actions of Jesus and the apostles, and the interactions of Jesus and the apostles with people whose lifestyles or careers were based around doing or threatening violence (mostly Roman soldiers).  These categories are arranged in rough order of their importance: direct teachings on violence are most informative, the actions of Jesus and the apostles allow a bit of leeway but are also very important (imagine the situation we would be in if Jesus explicitly banned all violence but then he and the apostles engaged in it – we would assume there were exceptions left unmentioned or implicit in the command), and the interactions with violent men are hardest to parse since the issue of their lifestyles or careers may remain off the radar in the interaction.

With this said let us address the direct sayings of Jesus first.  The most famous of these is “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5, Luke 6).  This saying is so important that it is worth examining the whole section in the Sermon on the Mount about violence as recorded by both Matthew and Luke.  (The following quotes are from the NIV but I am unaware of any significant translation differences in these passages.)  Matthew 5:38-48 reads:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Luke 6:27-36 reads:

“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

The first thing to note is that Matthew’s version includes a direct quote from the Torah which Jesus then overrides on his own authority (one of his implicit claims to be God).  The phrase “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” appears in several places in the Torah including Exodus 21:23-25 where it describes the penalties to be inflicted on someone who injures either a pregnant woman or her prematurely-born baby (the text is unclear as to who the subject of the injury is2).  Leviticus 24:19-20 assigns these penalties in a general sense to anyone who injures anyone else.  Deuteronomy 19:21 uses this same formula to describe what should be done to someone who attempts to frame someone else for a crime – whatever punishment the framed would have received should be dealt to the framer.  The function of this phrase within the Old Testament is beyond the scope of this article but the phrase does seem to encapsulate a general ideology of punishment whether it serves as an outer limit for punishment (no more than an eye for an eye, certainly not a life for an eye) or as an exact standard (no more or less than an eye for an eye).  I tend to believe that in the Exodus and Leviticus cases it serves the first function, as an outer limit to vengeance, while in the Deuteronomy case it is probably a requirement so that framing someone for a crime is not treated lightly.  However, in either case Jesus is overriding this phrase.

Jesus’ replacement is nonviolent.  Again, there is some debate about what kind of nonviolence this is.  Are these actions that Jesus suggests simply helpful to the attacker or are they nonviolent but shaming in their cultural context?  These debates can also be passed over.  Whether or not the aggressor is shamed (either because culture dictates it or because such a response highlights the aggressor’s wickedness) Jesus’ standard condemns violence.  Indeed, in Matthew’s version Jesus explicitly condemns resistance: “Do not resist an evil person.”  In both Matthew and Luke Jesus goes on to link this nonviolent command to a positive command to love one’s enemy.  This action is backed up by two lines of evidence: first, even sinners treat their friends well and Jesus’ followers are called to a higher standard.  Second, God Himself gives the things necessary for life to both the evil and the good and so we emulate God in His mercy by refusing violence towards the wicked.

There isn’t a very good response to this from the just war side.  Jesus’ commands are clear, relatively lengthy (reducing the chance that they are misunderstood), and appear in the context of general commands and not as a response to a particular situation.  The most often repeated assertion and possibly the best argument against understanding this passage as requiring complete pacifism is that this is not a statement about how the government should act but a statement about how individuals should act towards one another.  In this understanding individuals are barred from any sort of retributive violence or even self-protection but the government is empowered to hold the forces of chaos at bay with the tools denied to normal citizens.  However, this suggestion has three distinct problems.

First, separating the actions of the government and those of “normal people” makes sense only if we understand there to be a real division in the way God sees people who are appointed to, inherit, or brutally grab hold of the reins of government and the way God sees everyone else.  Does it really make sense to assume that an action that is illegitimate four seconds before you take an oath that makes you the leader of a country suddenly becomes legitimate once that oath is taken?   Second, there is no clear reason to establish a context for the Sermon on the Mount that makes this sermon about personal ethics only (even assuming you’ve bought the argument that there are such things as personal ethics separate from government ethics).  The best way to establish this context it to cite other verses that appear to require it but you certainly can’t find support within the Sermon on the Mount for limiting its scope.  Indeed (the third point), the Sermon on the Mount may well be the Sermon on the Mount because it is supposed to be a second Sinai.  The earlier paragraph where I appeared to digress into trivia discussing the origins of the phrase “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was no pointless digression: Jesus is rewriting Torah in his statement (from a mountain or, in Luke’s version, after coming down from a mountain) and the most reasonable context to see his statements in is as new Torah for a new kingdom.  The Torah is certainly not “personal only”.

An argument that I think is somewhat more convincing is that many of the ills that Jesus addresses (someone slapping you, someone taking your coat in court, someone forcing you to walk a mile) are societal ills.  Striking someone on the cheek is more likely to be the action of a social superior disciplining (at least in their eyes) a social inferior than a serious attempt to deal real damage.  Taking someone’s clothing in court is consistent with a debt-holder collecting on a debtor, a situation that frequently involved extremely predatory lending practices in the ancient world3.  Being forced to walk a mile probably refers to a practice whereby Roman soldiers were allowed (within limits which were often ignored) to force civilians to carry their packs for them.  It might be possible to argue that Jesus’ context is then that (contrary to the Zealots and other violent revolutionaries) societal change should not come about through violence4.  However, this argument would require support from other texts to be convincing.  If all we had was the Sermon on the Mount such theories would be little better than weaseling out of a tough command.

[1] For essentially the same reason I will not discuss John the Baptizer’s comments and interactions with soldiers.  John, while a great prophet, also has moments of confusion as when he sends his disciples to verify that Jesus is the Messiah.  It is quite possible to believe that John understood the magnitude of what Jesus had come to do without understanding the means by which it would be done.  Indeed, this is the viewpoint that I lean towards, that John understood that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah but, like most people of his day, was taken off-guard by how that Messiaship was enacted.  Given the plausibility of this argument John the Baptizer’s comments will not be considered definitive.

[2] Sorry about that to those of you who are staunchly pro-life and have regarded this verse as a linchpin in that decision.  It’s just not possible, it seems, to sort out from the Hebrew whether “eye for an eye” phrase  refers to the eyes (and other parts) of the child or the mother.  I am also pro-life but this isn’t the verse to argue that position from.

[3] Notably, the Bible does not seem to be interested in the legality of a deal nearly so much as its predatory or cooperative nature.  There is a lot of modern economic activity that is legal but probably not Biblical because of this.

[4] Interestingly, while it is common to hear that Roman soldiers were not allowed to coerce civilians into carrying their packs for more than one Roman mile I cannot locate any credible source (i.e., primary ancient source) for this statement.  There are actually a whole host of statements about how each of the three situations mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount are really places where a person could upend the social order through nonviolent action.  For instance, it is often said that slapping someone on one cheek must occur in a particular way to be legitimate and that turning the other cheek would require someone to backhand slap their victim which was somehow shameful.  Similarly, it is said that leaving a debtor naked in court would shame the debt-collector.  All of these bear investigation (although the idea that it would be shameful to strip a person naked in collecting a debt on them at least connects to prohibitions in the Torah against taking particular items of clothing from someone as collateral in a debt).

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2013 3:17 pm

    Footnote 4 is interesting. I’ve heard those claims as well and I’ve wondered how accurate they are. Suffering through injustice gracefully is very different than trying to get the upper hand through outside-the-box thinking–not only in terms of action, but in terms of attitude and goals.

    • Eric permalink
      May 6, 2013 8:28 pm

      Telling me my footnotes are interesting makes you my favorite person.

  2. May 6, 2013 7:59 pm

    What a co-inky-dink. My blog this week (coming Wed.) is on the very same passage. I make some similar, yet very different observations (if that makes sense…LOL).

    • Eric permalink
      May 6, 2013 8:29 pm

      I will have to be on the lookout for it!

  3. Kim Magnuson permalink
    July 24, 2018 2:48 am

    As an Anabaptist, I find “Just War Theory” not much more than an excuse to deny Jesus for personal gain forgetting his commands to “Fear not.”

    • Eric permalink
      July 25, 2018 8:41 pm

      Well, that issue is why I wrote this article series. I attended a Church of the Brethren college and spent a lot of time around the viewpoint you express, and I definitely think that many modern Christians use “just war” to mean “business as usual”, but I’m not entirely convinced by the Biblical arguments for complete pacifism.
      There are also some interesting historical arguments that suggest that modern Anabaptists are pacifists in part because the non-pacifist Anabaptists (e.g., the Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster) were so effectively suppressed. (Anabaptists are special targets since Anabaptists have always tended not to play nice with nation-states.)


  1. Pacifism and Just War: Not Peace but a Sword | The Jawbone Of an Ass

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